I come from a stable home. Two parents who are still together and just celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary. Four kids. A few regular ups and downs but certainly my childhood was filled with a sense of security and well-being if not full of ponies and sweet sixteen parties. My life could not be more different than King’s but I enjoyed reading an account of someone who was able to reconcile a tumultuous childhood and examine it in front of the world. King’s book proves once again that people are neither strictly good or strictly evil. They are complex and complicated and live in shades of grey.
Mary Agnes Taggart Hall was born in New Jersey in the early 1980s to a young married couple who didn’t believe in regular birth control and didn’t quite know how to stay together. After King’s uncle dies, her father begins taking extended time outs from family life. Left at home with three children aged two and under Mary’s mother was understandably overwhelmed. Mary’s mother reached out to her own estranged father and as a result the youngest child, Becky Jo, was sent to live with Grandparents in Oklahoma. Thus began the “giving away” of babies born into the family. I know that “giving away” is not the politically correct term, but King herself classifies the losses thus as she speaks about her thoughts and feelings whilst her mother arranged adoptions for four subsequent sisters. Eventually both Mary and her older brother Jacob end up in Oklahoma with their grandpa and step grandma, Mimi, who eventually adopt Mary and Becky Jo. Bastards explores complex feelings about family and identity. When Mary is in college one of the sisters her mother had given up (King’s words, not mine. I would say placed for adoption because that is what the kids say now, but I want to be true to King’s own feelings) comes looking for answers and for her birth parents. One by one the sisters return to meet their relatives and each of these reunions fills a missing gap for King, but each brings more questions.
One of the most complex and touching parts of the book is about King’s relationship with her father, Michael, who she’d idolized as a child. A reader can tell that even though King tries to emotionally step away from Michael, she is hurt when he lashes out at her and the seeds of that hurt were planted when he left the family when she was a child. King’s father and mother eventually split up for good and forge their own lives but the scars of their union followed their children. King doesn’t dwell on but discusses frankly her own sexual abuse and the challenges her siblings faced with drug and alcohol abuse. She also explores what it means to love and how love enters into obligation and into the idea of family.
I have a friend who said she doesn’t like memoirs written by anyone under forty and I have to laugh, because in many cases, I agree, but in the case of Bastards I felt like the memoir was a living organism. It was as if King had opened herself and her life to the reader in a very intimate way. She wasn’t throwing down tomes from atop a mountain where she now understood everything that she was telling us so we’d just patiently have to read it until the end. No, King threw us right in the middle of this messy, complicated, questionable life and almost asks the reader to help her understand it by going on the journey with her. This book, written down the road twenty years would have a very different feel. I am glad that King gave us the raw version. I have close friends and family that are involved in the adoption triad that would benefit from reading this book as it gives another insight (that of both birth sibling reunited in adulthood and that of adoptee) into the feelings of someone who doesn’t come from your traditional family mould.